What ever happened to conclusions in books?

As per previous posts, I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Chase’s new history of Chartism. It’s a great piece of work, which achieves the difficult task of offering a clear narrative without sacrificing cogent analysis of the movement. The interspersing of Chartist biographies into the text helped to humanise a story, which, inevitably as a treatment of a mass political organisation might have become a bewildering blizzard of names. Chase also has a great eye for detail: the text is larded with evocative quotations and telling anecdotes, (this one in particular obviously grabbed my attention):

‘Reflecting on Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentarian cause, Hanson jolted awake. He rushed to find Elizabeth: ‘I say, lass, thah mun find me a white handkerchief for my neck ready for next Sunday; I am going to praech.’ To this she replied, ‘What ar’ta going to turn Methody na?’ ‘Noa,’ said Abram, ‘but I am going to praech for all that. I’ve just fun aght that t’Charter is to be gotten by praeching and praying.’ (p. 29)

BUT, Chase’s book doesn’t really have a conclusion, only a series of further biographies and a final ‘comment.’ And it’s not just Chase. I’ve been noticing that a large number of recent books that I have been reading are, well, inconclusive (see my review of Mike Braddick’s God’s Fury below.)

Of course, both Braddick and Chase make good cases for leaving their books open-ended. As Braddick suggests, aiming for over-arching conclusions about a period as historiographically contested as the 1640s is a somewhat fatuous task. Equally, as Chase points out, like many works on the success or failure of the English reformation, works on Chartism tend to offer either pessimistic or optimistic conclusions on the movement largely depending on where the authors draw the “finishing-line” chronologically. This makes such summaries inevitably rather artificial.

Reflecting on these historiographical uncertainties and/or issues of focus is valid and worthwhile. On the other hand, there a books like Diane Purkiss’s People’s History, which just, well, stops, with no thorough reflection on what the reader is supposed to have gained from the proceeding 570 pages. I’ve seen this trend in recent scholarly monographs too, so it appears to be a disease that doesn’t only afflict works written for a popular audience.

Where is all this inconclusiveness coming from?


God’s Fury, England’s Fire review

I’m not sure when, if ever, this review will appear in print, so thought I would post here anyway. As you can see, my impressions of the book are very similar to those of Mercurius Politicus.

The Truth about the English Revolution

Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars (Allen Lane, 2008), pp. 758, £30.

It was Phillip Guedalla who said ‘history repeats itself: historians repeat each other.’ As the hundred and fifty plus pages of notes and bibliography accompanying Michael Braddick’s book demonstrate, writing a single-volume history of the English civil war is now something like attempting Monty Python’s ‘All-England Summarize Proust Competition.’ In the past few years alone we have been treated to three major popular histories of the civil wars and revolution: Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution (2002); Diane Purkiss’s, The English Civil Wars: A People’s History (2006); and John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt (2007), none of them under 500 pages in length.

It is much to Braddick’s credit that he is able to cut a swathe through this dense thicket of historical writing on the civil wars and offer a genuinely fresh reading of England’s only true revolution. This is a ‘new’ history in two important senses: it summarises the most recent scholarship on the 1640s to present a narrative that is as up-to-date as possible and it supports that excellent synthesis of recent work with original research utilising the still under-explored evidence of cheap print.

Braddick takes his title from one of these civil war pamphlets, a relatively obscure work by John Benbrigge which offered a providential reading of Charles I’s surrender at Oxford in April 1646. Benbrigge viewed the defeat of the King as a divine punishment upon England for the sins of the nation. Yet, as Braddick points out, providence was a common political language in the 1640s, used by both Royalists and Parliamentarians to justify their actions. Competing claims based on similar authorities led the civil war to become a conflict over the meaning of truth itself. The difficulty of resolving truth-claims led some, like the members of Samuel Hartlib’s intellectual circle, to look to science to provide certainty. For religious radicals, tired of the seemingly endless claims and counter-claims based upon scripture, it led to a rejection of biblical authority. The 1640s then, were characterised by a cacophony of competing professions of truthfulness which not even ultimate Parliamentarian success on the battlefield could quell.

If Braddick’s book is alive to the anxieties, uncertainties and confusion of the day, it is also refreshingly honest about the difficulties and imponderables facing historians. For example, in his discussion of popular allegiance, Braddick rightly states that there is yet no fully satisfactory general explanation of why people chose sides in the civil war. The best that we can say is that we have a number of excellent local studies of allegiance which show us that it was a very complicated business, and the reasons why people chose sides varied from region to region and over time. This might have tested the patience of Braddick’s editor, (literary editors tend to prefer historians to skate over such vagaries) but it is a more truthful approach than is usually on display in mass-market works of history.

This recognition of the complexities confronting both contemporaries in the 1640s and their historians doesn’t prevent Braddick from providing a gripping narrative. A particular strength of the book is the way in which it combines a detailed discussion of the military campaigns with a nuanced treatment of the political debates. Political historians tend to be put off writing about military matters, even though the influence upon politics of events on the battlefield is obvious. Likewise, military historians are often too wrapped up in describing troop formations or assessing generalship to ask what these battles were being fought for. Braddick achieves this feat without ever allowing the reader to forget that these were very cruel wars with very high human costs.

We know how the story ends, with the trial and execution of the King in 1649. What is less certain is what the events of the 1640s mean. Throughout the work, Braddick strenuously avoids the terms ‘revolution’ or ‘revolutionary.’ In an open-ended conclusion he tells us that some of the writing that emerged from the ‘creative chaos’ of the 1640s (Thomas Hobbes, the English Levellers) might have fashioned a path from the world of the Reformation to that of the Enlightenment. Yet Braddick resists the persistent Whiggery that lurks beneath most works of recent popular history, the commonplace (and largely unsupported) assertion that past revolutions gifted present freedoms. If Braddick’s answer to the question of what the 1640s signified is less definitive than we are used to getting, it is also, again, more truthful.

Old papers pt 1. ‘Ideology and Allegiance in the English Civil War’

A very old paper, given at MWCBS back in 1999. At the time, my lone piece of feedback was from a guy who asked me if I worked on ‘odes.’ ‘No, oaths’, I replied. ‘Oh’ he said ‘thanks anyway.’

In pdf form.

If you are so mad as to want to cite it,  the following would be fine

E. Vallance, ‘Ideology and Allegiance in the English Civil War’, (unpublished paper, delivered at 1999 MWCBS, Chicago), accessed at (this URL) date etc.



Published in: on April 23, 2008 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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God’s Fury, England’s Fire

A very full and fair review here by Mercurius Politicus, with links to other assessments in print.

Published in: on April 2, 2008 at 4:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Just how evil was Oliver Cromwell?

A while ago, my wife bought me a pack of ‘Terror Top Chumps’ playing cards as a stocking-filler. I hadn’t really looked at them until the other day and was a bit surprised to see that the only British entry in this rogues gallery was Oliver Cromwell. I reproduce his card and that of Mussolini below for comparison.

Now, I, of course, complained that the Cromwell card was terribly inaccurate. How could he be responsible for 600000 deaths? As far as I know, the usually quoted figure (taken from Charles Carleton’s Going to the Wars) for England is 85,000 killed in combat with a further 100,000 dying from injuries or disease. The fighting in both Scotland and particularly Ireland was nastier, though their populations were smaller and, as I recall, the civil wars accounted for 20% drop in Ireland’s population, not a 40% one. (Which is still pretty horrendous.) So, even if you make Cromwell accountable for every single death in Britain’s civil wars, 600k still seems too high.

At this point, my wife, who I was boring with all this, pointed out that I was really saying that Cromwell was probably only responsible for 10000s of deaths rather than 100,000s, which didn’t really make him a swell all-round guy.

Which got me thinking. Leaving aside the good or bad taste of basing a card game on historical mass-murderers, how do we assess ‘evil’ historically? For many English people, Cromwell remains a ‘Great Briton.’ For many Irish people, he’s the Devil in human form and synonymous with everything bad about British rule. What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Mussolini? Were the deaths Cromwell was responsible for acceptable because they were mostly armed combatants? (What successful general won’t be responsible for the deaths of many people in some way?) Or is it just a question of which side of the Irish sea you are looking at him from?

Cromwell’s 350 years dead this year. Will we be commemorating a great hero or a historical villain?

cromwell terror top chump card


Published in: on March 9, 2008 at 11:07 am  Comments (2)  
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Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire

reviewed in the Guardian by Sir Keith Thomas. Generally positive but Sir Keith was not pleased with the po-mo twist to the tale.

Finally snagged a review copy myself but don’t hold your breath for me to post it here as the NS (for whom it is due) apparently have a bit of backlog.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire

by Mike Braddick is out now.

Very reasonably priced at only £18 too. Some reviews out as well. A rather grudging one from Diane Purkiss in the FT, who still appears to be in a bit of snit about some of the responses (i.e. John Adamson’s) to her own ‘people’s’ history of the English Civil War (an odd title, given, as Adamson pointed out, the almost complete absence of any ‘ordinary’ people from its pages.)

Much more generous reviews here in the THES by R.C.Richardson and in the Spectator by Robert Stewart.

Still sniffing round for a review copy myself, but would be interested to hear if others have taken a look at it yet.

How we should remember the Levellers


Reproduced from my article in BBC History Magazine Oct 2007, http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com

 The Levellers Legacy

The Putney debates are some of the most important political discussions in English history, but their significance is being distorted by recent attempts to commemorate them.


E.P. Thompson wrote his classic history of English working-class radicals to save them from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Now it seems historians must write to save radicalism from the condescension of the tourist industry.

The Putney Debates were voted the most overlooked radical moment in British history in a recent competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Tristram Hunt, who launched the competition, hopes that this revived interest in Britain’s democratic heritage will lead to the creation of a ‘freedom trail’ of radical history visitor attractions based on the American model. As a starting point, St. Mary’s Putney was awarded £1000 for winning the contest, which will help fund a week’s events commemorating the debates plus a permanent exhibition. The timely raising of awareness of these historic events is welcome. However, the broader project of commemorating the development of British democracy threatens to replace genuine history with a politically-motivated fiction.

The Putney debates began on 28 October 1647, as the General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss The Agreement of the People. This paper, produced by civilian Levellers, called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law.

Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, MP for Droitwich, vice-admiral of the English Navy and an implacable opponent of Oliver Cromwell, expressed his belief that all men that signed the Agreement should be eligible to vote:

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent put himself under that government’.

An irate Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, responded:

‘no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’.

The confrontation between Rainborowe and Ireton is often seen as the defining moment of the Putney Debates of 1647 between the army leadership, rank and file ‘Agitators’ and civilian Levellers: the radical advocate of the rights of all free-born Englishman versus the defender of the landed interest who ‘would have an eye to property’. The Putney Debates have been celebrated as a seminal moment in the history of British democracy by a host of twentieth-century historians and politicians.  Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.

It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.

This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.

Celebration of the Levellers, including the Guardian’s recent competition, has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s  provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.

Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.

The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.

So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).

This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.

Published in: on November 6, 2007 at 10:02 am  Comments (8)  
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